PRIVATE PROPERTY, PUBLIC INTEREST, AND THE ROLE OF THE STATE IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRITAIN: THE CASE OF THE LIGHTHOUSES 1
Until 1836, many of England's lighthouses were privately owned. The owners levied tolls on all merchant shipping which made use of the lights, and in many cases grew rich from the proceeds. After 1815 these profits became increasingly contentious, and, under pressure from shipowners, merchants, and the radical MP Joseph Hume, the whig government abolished private ownership of lighthouses and made Trinity House the sole lighthouse authority for England. The choice of Trinity House as the central administration from a range of alternatives made a UK-wide authority impossible, however, due to the unwillingness of Irish and Scottish MPs to see their national boards replaced by an ‘inferior’ English one. The reform process sheds light on contemporary perceptions of the relationship between private property and public interest and suggests that alongside the process of post-war retrenchment, the state was acquiring a new role as guardian of the public interest, often positioning itself against certain forms of private property. Behind the ‘old corruption’ rhetoric which characterized the demand for reform lay the conviction that certain resources should be excluded from the realm of private property by the state, and that private profit made at the expense of the public interest was morally wrong.
1 This article grew out of a chapter from my masters thesis. I am grateful to Martin Daunton and Crosbie Smith, the examiners of the thesis, for their constructive criticism, likewise two anonymous Historical Journal referees, and Paddy Ireland for his time and ideas. Earlier versions of this article were presented as papers to the ‘Parliaments, Representation, and Society’ seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, and at the University of Kent. I am grateful for comments made on these occasions. Above all, I would like to thank my supervisors, Hugh Cunningham and Anna Gambles, for their invaluable help and support. My research has been kindly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board.